Season of the hamster

Reflections and tips on winter bike training

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I’m always torn at this time of year. On one side, there are the happy holidays, when you get to see family, go to parties, eat and drink and generally overindulge. On the other hand, the cusp of mid-winter also heralds cold, wind and long dark nights, which is cool if you’re a vampire (and who isn’t these days?) but not so good if you’re into exercise, the outdoors, and adventure – and have a job.

But with physical training, it’s all use it or lose it. And at my age, consistency means everything. It’s hard to battle back into shape after a slack period. Combine these challenges with the seasonal evils of eggnog, Christmas fudge and Tivo, and the holidays could easily lead to a future of elasticized pants and Walmart scooters. Consequently I’m working hard to exercise daily in the brief daylight hours. Since my rural locale has no gyms, rarely sees skiable snow, and my hip’s too trashed for trail running (at least until my upcoming joint replacement) that leaves biking, or specifically, winter biking.

This is a tough transition for me. Cycling has never been my favorite sport, and over the years I’ve become addicted to combining exercise with adventure. To quote the the famous tightrope walker Karl Wallenda “Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.” But I’m trying to readjust that attitude because fate and calcium dictate that I’ll be biking a lot over the next year. Still, after a great summer of adventures from Alaska to Switzerland, it’s tough to return to mere hamster wheel training.

Now it’s not like mountain biking (the only sort of bike I own) can’t be exciting, but I don’t ride single track or rocky jeep roads anymore. I’ve had too many crashes over the years. I once cracked a helmet off my head by firing over the handlebars and tent-pegging into a bedrock outcrop. Another time I had to reset my dislocated shoulder using a spare inner tube tied to a downed log. With all due respect to the fine sport of fat tire cycling, there are reasons that emergency room staff call them ‘donor bikes.’

Besides, I’m often riding alone here. Despite it’s superb scenery and terrain, Torrey lacks the thriving, partner-rich outdoor scene of many wilderness portal towns. And I have two friends who underwent serious

solo bike crashes deep in the wilderness. One shattered his shoulder and back, but managed to struggle to a remote ranch, where he passed out on the doorstep. The other woke up covered in blood, not remembering what had happened, or who and where he was, until an hour later. No thanks. Epics are best read, not lived.

So I’m sticking to lonely asphalt highways and graded gravel backroads, which is great training, but to my mind it definitely falls under the definition of rodent-cage recreation.

At least I’m learning how to stay warmer, safer and more interested. So I’ll pass along a few tips for cycling readers who, like myself, might find themselves recreationally challenged by the cold and dark of winter.

[] Regardless of season, invest in a top quality saddle. Your ass will thank you and your mileages will improve immediately.

[] Pile on the clothes. You make your own wind on a bike, and it can be bitter.

[] Keep your hands warm. Thick ski gloves work fine for shifting and braking.

[] For motivation, an iPod definitely helps, but don’t turn it on unless you’re in a low traffic area, and always use a cycling mirror so you’re aware of cars and trucks approaching from behind.

[] Take a light hydration pack with extra clothes. You’ll need to change layers between sweaty climbs and long, frigid descents.

[] Skip the fancy bike shoes. Put toe clip pedals on your bike and ride in normal shoes with thick, poofy socks. Or make warm toe covers out of closed cell foam and non-metallic tape (standard silver duct

tape is cold).

[] Check your local forecast and weather radar immediately before setting out. I’ve barely missed several snow squalls that would have made riding treacherously slick.

[] Take a cell phone or beacon. Even local woodlots and back roads become much more remote in winter. If you’re injured it could be a long wait, and the cold won’t help.

[] Always tell your spouse or a friend where you’re going and then stick to that route. You can’t call for help if you’re knocked unconscious.

[] Don’t even think about riding when the roads are slick. Bikes and ice do not mix.

Got your own winter exercise and motivational tips? By all means, share them in the comments section below because I need all the help I can get. –Steve Howe